BWW REVIEWS: AMAZING GRACE's World Premiere in Chicago: Sweet Sounds, Heavy Themes Close to Completion
Can a new musical be "pre-Broadway" without having a New York theater booked, or without even announcing a timetable for said booking? How about a musical largely penned by a previously unknown writer, one who worked as a Pennsylvania policeman, and never formally studied music composition? Well, AMAZING GRACE is that show, and this expensive-looking, high-aiming show that's been in development since 2007, with book, music and lyrics by Christopher Smith (the book is co-written with the veteran playwright Arthur Giron) opened on Sunday night. It had New York actors (some quite well known) onstage, an A-list New York design team in the wings, and an enthusiastic audience at a theater named Shubert. Well, almost. The Nederlander Organization renamed the theater the Bank of America Theatre a half-decade ago, and it's located in Chicago. It runs here through November 2, 2014 presented by Broadway in Chicago.
The musical tells the tale of the early life of the man who wrote the text for Christendom's most well-known non-Christmas hymn, giving the musical its title. I'm judging that fact as neutral in the audience and ticket business, as it may turn off as many people as it interests. And those turned off will be missing quite the story, indeed, as John Newton was a real-life 18th century Englishman who spent a number of years in "riotous living," as the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son would style it. To get to the heart of the matter, he was a slave trader, and a non-religious one at that. And English slavery, gentle reader, is a story hardly told in the American theater, and certainly never before in an American musical. In a story about slavery, in which life and death is a constant topic of discussion and dramatic action, America is never mentioned. Religion is touched on, but not so much that the show isn't right for the commercial Broadway theater. It very much is. But is it ready for it?
You've got a title that at least tells you where the story ends up, and a subject that is difficult to watch. Yet it is presented in a fresh, new, historical and non-pious context. Add to the mix two exciting, rising Broadway stars, some experienced veteran performers and a cast that numbers 34 in all. Add exquisite and sexy costumes by Toni-Leslie James, sumptuous lighting by Ken Billington and Paul Miller, and a set credited to Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce that somehow takes us from a rich English seaside town to African and Caribbean beaches via many sequences on a ship, and the audience is willingly along for the ride. The music and lyrics are serviceable or far better than that, with a surprisingly diverse musical palette under consideration. And be sure to start off the show with Josh Young in high, contemporary Broadway full throttle. So far, so good!
Young, a Tony nominee as Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar" and a 2013 BroadwayWorld Chicago Award nominee as Che in "Evita," gets to step up from faux-narrator to leading man in this production, and gets the show off to an incredible start, unleashing his trademarked voice on the song, "Truly Alive," reminiscent of Douglas Sills and the whole male ensemble in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" in its drive and verve. Young seems rarely offstage in this show, and for someone known as a singer he acts up a storm. This is star-making work from young Mr. Young. And though his first entrance didn't garner the applause it was intended to on Sunday night, I have a feeling it will, quite soon.
Given the rumors about his getting knocked in the head by a set-piece and missing some performances last week, he seemed in perfect health. And it's a highly physical role (gunfights, fistfights, beatings, dancing, falling overboard, all sort of shirts coming on and off). It's a very emotional one as well (arguments with this father, watching his childhood sweetheart romanced by a lout of an aristocrat, realizing that one's servant is actually an African tribesman that one knows literally nothing about, etc.). Young throws himself into this role like he's the luckiest youngster to ever get a promotion, and the one most deserving of a major shot at fame. He sinks his teeth into the depth and breadth of a lusty man who even in his youth was likely more complex that we will ever know.
As Mary Catlett, Newton's young love (and the course of that love never did run smooth), Erin Mackey's acting was, to me, even more impressive than her considerable vocal talents. A pop soprano in an age when that is never a given, she sings sweetly on the interpolated "Rule Brittania" and on Smith's songs for her, "Tell My Why" and "I Still Believe." But as a young woman of means, coming to realize she loathes slavery and may be in a position to do something about it, Mackey has bite and gumption beyond her character's years. Though she is one of the few characters here who is never in actual physical danger, her possible loss of station is palpable enough. Standing up to the Prince of Wales is tough!
As John's father, Captain Newton, Tony nominee Tom Hewitt snarls and snaps his way through act one, only to have a change of heart toward his son at the top of act two that (no fault of the actor's) seemed somewhat unmotivated and unbelievable. Perhaps a few lines in the first act that hint at his forgiving nature would help this transition seem more plausible. And Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, as the Newton family's house slave, is remarkably strong here, bringing gravitas, wit, pointed commentary and strong presence to a role that gave me my strongest reaction to a book scene of the entire evening.
In the role of Mary's Nanna, Laiona Michelle provided her young charge with a strong moral compass, and sang her brief and tormented song, "Daybreak," like a more mature Heather Headley might someday wish to do. As a whip-cracking and sexy princess of Sierra Leone, Harriet D. Foy was having more fun in a good way than one should have in so serious a milieu. The veteran Chris Hoch and the young Stanley Bahorek were less distinguished, perhaps, but in fairly thankless roles as a period slimeball and a responsible seaman, respectively.
The Tony winner Christopher Gatelli provides choreography for this production that runs the gamut from staid social dances of English society in the age of Handel to African tribal dances, both impressive, if slight diversions from the plot. The large ensemble handled the work with considerable aplomb. Speaking of the plot, the show for the most part had me involved, balancing father-son conflict, love triangle intrigue, class conflict, abolitionist plotting, high seas adventure, tortured memories, culture clashes, Christianity versus atheism, and crises of the soul pretty darn well, actually. There were perhaps a few longeurs in the first act, but nothing major.
However, the end of the show still needs a bit of work, I think. Even though the show does a very good dance around the idea of not seeming too religious for Broadway, and a rabbi is one of the abolitionists, there has got to be a moment of connection with the Christian God, I think, and that connection was a little bit vague. John Newton's turning point in life, asking for God's mercy as his ship was foundering in a storm, seemed less important than many other events which transpired, even though it should be the whole point, shouldn't it? Nor was it clearly explained, retold or rethought. A happy song ("Testimony") ensued, and then Newton proceeded to make amends to those he has wronged. Years later, he wrote a hymn text. And then the cast assembled to sing it for us. Okay. They're winding it up. I get it.
As written by Newton, "Amazing Grace" had five verses, but I think the cast only sang four of them, followed by a verse that he in fact did not write ("When we've been there ten thousand years," etc.). Well, okay, I can imagine audience focus groups complaining if that verse didn't appear. I can also put aside the fact that Newton didn't write the tune ("New Britain") that is universally joined to this lyric, nor did he probably ever hear that tune at all. (I get it, we need dramatic license.) But I wanted to know just a little bit more about Newton actually writing the words, not just be presented via interpolated song with the contrast between human trafficking and feeling saved, redeemed, sanctified or "found."
The show is almost there, but not quite. I see that the song is about his life. But why did he put pen to paper? When was slavery outlawed in England? And did the show mention that Newton eventually became a clergyman in the Church of England? I think it did not.
But for the first eighty percent of the show, this production and the writing that it embodies had me in pretty good spirits. Director Gabriel Barre and music director Joseph Church, guided to no small degree by the willingness of producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland to give Smith's musico-dramatic vision a chance to live, have crafted a complex and moving piece of theater, with thrilling musical moments, stunning visual imagery and roles that actors would give their eyeteeth to sink their molars into. Passion here takes the form of the struggle to live, to love, to be free, to live in peace in community. These are universal themes, and John Newton's story lends itself well to this passion and these themes.
If there are a few dramatic points left to be made, and perhaps a few bumps in continuity or motivation to be identified, those are minor compared to the achievement on stage for a short while longer on Monroe Street in Chicago's Loop. Come watch two young actors become stars, and hear exciting music that carves its own niche even while it's reminiscent of Schonberg, Wildhorn or Flaherty. Learn about an entire topic of world history that is never really discussed. Witness some stunning action sequences and some eye-popping visuals. And see how one man's search for success amongst the worst kind of chaos led him instead to stability, goodness and love. I enjoyed AMAZING GRACE. Both my religious self and my Broadway self enjoyed it very much. That's a pretty neat trick, actually. Now, to connect the dots near the end. Connect!
AMAZING GRACE, music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, and directed by Gabriel Barre, plays at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre through November 2, 2014. Tickets range from $33-$100. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations and online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Joan Marcus
From This Author Paul W. Thompson